Nick Cave is a literary magpie, and even in appearance he reflects that of the spry ominous bird – all pale and dressed in black. His lyricism shows more than an understanding of the written word, but a playfulness that allows him to creatively bend the rules of telling a story. To me, no song in his archive reflects this better than ‘More News From Nowhere’ (from the legendary 2008 album ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’) which blurs the line between melody and epic poetry.
Nick Cave takes Homer’s Odyssey and plucks out the pieces of its imagery that sparkle most for him, most notably ‘I saw Miss Polly singing with some girls, I cried – struck me to the mast’. With the character of Miss Polly as PJ Harvey and her biography by James R. Blandford being titled ‘Siren Rising’, this is perhaps the easiest lyric to decipher. The Sirens in the Odyssey being one of the more famous parts of the tale, where Odysseus commands his men to tie him to the mast of their ship and to stuff their ears with wax, in order to avoid temptation and avert a deadly fate. To read further into this metaphor would be complete speculation, but we can safely say from all evidence that the connection between Cave and Harvey still retains a lot of power and poetry to this day.
We are told that the character of ‘Betty X’ has hair ‘like the wine-dark sea on which sailors come home’. ‘Wine-dark sea’ is an epithet used by Homer, ‘οἶνοψ πόντος’ / ‘oînops póntos’, with the literal translation meaning ‘wine-face sea’. It is used twelve times in the Odyssey, and a further five in the Iliad. This use of colour within both Homer and Cave’s writing is definitely more romantic than accurate, however, historian PG Maxwell-Stuart argued that the use of ‘wine’ could attest more to temperament than shade. In the case of Nick Cave, the journey in this song is in part about his battles with sobriety. With Homer’s use of this epithet being for when the seas were black, tempestuous, and unpredictable – we can see how this reflects in the behaviours that are known to come with addiction. The role of who ‘Betty X’ may remain unclear, but another lyric – ‘so much wind blew through her words, I went rolling down the hall’, reflects the ruler Aeolus, gifting Odysseus a westerly wind to guide him home. This reference to the return home, as well as the wine-dark sea hair being a vessel for return, leads me to believe that Betty X is in fact the raven-haired Susie Cave. She is the symbol of home for him, she is the destination after the odyssey, and he sings of her light and how her light is all her own.
In almost every stanza, we are introduced to a new female figure who adds a different element to Nick Cave’s narrative – the only one unnamed being ‘a black girl with no clothes on’. He sings of her dancing, calls her his ‘Nubian princess’, and unveils that he ‘spent the next seven years between her legs pining for my wife’. My attempt to unpick a real-life identity for this figure, such as with Miss Polly or Betty X, was fruitless. However, my research leads me to believe that she represents something other than a person. Seven years is how long Odysseus spent on Ogygia, the island of Calypso the nymph daughter of Atlas. Throughout those seven years, Calypso seduces Odysseus, even going so far as to offer him immortality in exchange for his hand in marriage. Odysseus rejects this offer, longing for his home and wife, Penelope, but only manages to escape the island when the
Gods intervene. Modern Greek tradition likens Ogygia to be an island nearabouts Greece itself, but the geographer and traveller Strabo argued that the placement of the island is more likely to be in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, placing it below the equator. Perhaps this is why Nick Cave chose for Calypso to be represented by a black woman, since this placement of the island would dictate a dark skin tone for its inhabitants, as well as for Calypso herself. Even with describing her as Nubian, we can read in translations of the text that Homer describes Calypso as weaving upon a loom with a shuttle made from gold, and the very root of the word ‘Nubia’ translates to ‘the land of gold’ in Ancient Egyptian. Why wasn’t Cave’s Calypso granted the humanity of a name? Maybe she is a personification of heroin due to the intoxicating words he attributes to her, and leaving her unnamed reflects the dehumanisation that can be left in its wake; perhaps she is the embodiment of the revelry some can have in the wallows of depression, the sick comfort you can find in the sadness.
‘More News from Nowhere’ references the idea of the journey, the long and arduous adventure that comes hand in hand with being alive. The song is long, slow, and repetitive. With the chorus comes the slow echoing chant of ‘More News from Nowhere’, reminiscent of a Greek chorus or sailors singing as they row upon the oars of old ships. In recitals of epic poems in Ancient Greece, music would be used to emphasise parts of the story, as well as recurring lamentations. The tune hardly veers from its path, the vocals barely stray from a specific pattern, the steady beat is a simplistic foil to the complex nature of the lyrics. The melody only shifts as Cave sings ‘and it’s getting strange in here, and it gets stranger every year’ / ‘don’t it make you feel alone, don’t it make you want to get right back home’, punctuating the absurdities and emphasising a yearning for stability before returning to the compelling monotony. Jim Sclavunos is on the drums, the anchored heartbeat akin to waves smacking against a bow, with Martyn P. Casey on bass providing a solid foundation for that triumphant earworm of a riff, played by Warren Ellis plucking upon a viola. Nick Cave himself veers away from Homer for the final verse, existentially expressing the futilities of living with ‘everything you do today, tomorrow is obsolete’, before committing one final chant of the song title ‘More News From Nowhere’, taken from the 1890 utopian socialist novel by William Morris – yet another example of Cave as that literary magpie, creating a collage with his words. In spite of it’s existentialist ending, it is a song seemingly designed to keep you moving, to get you from one place to the next. I listen to it as I walk the streets of London, as I look out of train windows, or as my plane takes off into the sky. ‘More News from Nowhere’ is a song made of pure momentum, despairing at the godlike forces beyond our control but still nonetheless pushing forward.